There’s no doubt that Alzheimer’s disease is a difficult disease to deal with. This progressive brain disorder is named for Dr. Alois Alzheimer, who first noted the disease in 1906. Alzheimer’s disease causes brain cells to deteriorate and eventually die, causing the loss of memory, judgment and reasoning, as well as other important cognitive functions.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, a term used for loss of key mental and intellectual abilities that are serious enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s is the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States. It is estimated that over five million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease.
Risk Factors Increase with Age
As we progress through each decade of life, the risk of getting Alzheimer’s increases. Although the disease mostly affects older people, it can also occur in people much younger. Genetic factors are known to play a role in less than 10% of cases. People with a family history of Alzheimer’s have a greater risk of getting the disease and some people inherit a gene that can cause early onset, before the age of 65.
Plaques and Tangles Mark the Disease
Alzheimer’s disease causes identifiable changes in the brain, including the presence of beta-amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. The plaques and tangles form in predictable patterns, beginning in specific areas of the brain. Studies suggest that the dementia in Alzheimer’s patients is caused by loss of synapses (the connection between nerve cells) and shrinkage and death of neurons in the brain as the disease progresses. A decrease in the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is crucial for cognitive function, is also thought to play a role.
Key Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment
The first symptom of Alzheimer’s disease is usually a loss of short-term memory, such as the forgetting of familiar names and places, appointments, and the names of everyday objects. Other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease you should be aware of include:
- General confusion and disorientation to time and date
- A decreasing inability to perform everyday tasks
- Increased problems communicating
- Repeating stories, words and questions
- The inability to perform simple math such as balancing a checkbook
- Personality changes including apathy, irritability, depression and anxiety
- Problems eating and sleeping.
- Wandering, paranoia and delusions
Your primary care provider can help diagnose the difference between normal aging and Alzheimer’s disease. A simple test to analyze memory and other skills can be given at the doctor’s office. Treatment can be provided by your primary care provider or a neurologist, a doctor who specializes in disorders of the brain and nervous system.
Although there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, medications are available to alleviate symptoms, and active management of the disease can improve quality of life. As researchers continue to make progress, it is hoped that new treatments will become available to stop the progression of the disease. Your doctor can keep you informed of the most up-to-date information on Alzheimer’s disease. There are also valuable resources available at the Alzheimer’s Association website, www.alz.org, including information on care resources, ongoing research and clinical trials.